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The Existential Horror Created by the First X-Ray Images

This was the very first x-ray ever taken, in 1895. It shows the hand of Bertha Roentgen, the wife of Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen, inventor of the x-ray. The image helped him win a Nobel Prize in 1901. It had to have been very weird to see the inside of her hand, the long, thin, bones, the skin barely visible, and her wedding ring. The x-ray was a side effect of research Roentgen had been doing with Crookes tubes, which later evolved into cathode ray tubes. He had tried diverting the electrons with aluminim foil.

In early November, he repeated the experiment in the dark in his lab at the University of Würzburg in Germany. But then he noticed something happening far away from the Crookes tube. A screen coated in barium platinocyanide, the fluorescent material that was used on photographic plates, was sitting on a chair near the experiment, and every time Wilhelm turned on the electricity, the screen glowed. Not quite believing what he was seeing, he dedicated his time to rigorously testing and documenting the strange rays, which he called “X.” He put objects made from different materials on photographic plates and exposed them to X-rays, and found that the mysterious rays passed through some but not others. Eventually, a few days before Christmas, he asked his wife to help him in the lab. Anna held her left hand on a photographic plate for 15 minutes while Wilhelm beamed X-rays at it. According to legend, she said, “I have seen my death!” and never set foot in his lab again.

Read more about the development of x-rays and how it became quite the rage at Atlas Obscura.

(Image credit: Wellcome Library, London)


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